Marie Mullen in the Dublin Theatre Festival production of Testament, 2011. Photograph: Patrick Redmond
Colm Tóibín's mothers don't always behave as they should; they are often unpredictable, occasionally downright troublesome, prone to gusts of passion or rage or – worse – unnatural indifference. Rarely are they uncomplicated figures of placid, nurturing devotion; but they do make for fantastically involving fiction. In his 2006 short-story collection, Mothers and Sons, Tóibín brought us relationships that were often characterised by the way they inverted traditional roles. An entrepreneurial widow plots to escape to the anonymity of the big city, clashing with her son's determination to hold fast to their small-town life; another man slinks away from a crowded pub rather than be spotted by the celebrated mother who has absented herself from his life; in "A Long Winter", a magnificent extended piece set in rural Spain, a young man is forced to keep house ineptly for his father after his alcoholic mother walks out into a snowstorm rather than be deprived of drink.
The Testament of Mary
by Colm Tóibín
It's not just made up mothers, either. A Guest at the Feast, the short memoir that Tóibín released as a Penguin Special ebook at the end of last year, contains tremendously tender, poignant portraits of his mother, father and other family members. But one memorable passage also depicts his mother on the warpath, as the young Tóibín runs into trouble at school:
Now she went and got her hair done and put on her best high heels and set out for the monastery. For days afterwards, she gave anyone who called a vivid account of her interview with Brother Carbery. She told him she had no interest in anything he had to say, she was here to talk and not to listen. And she was here to tell him that if I didn't get a scholarship, declensions or no declensions, she would blame him personally and write to the head of the Christian Brothers in Ireland about him.
It was deliciously unfair.
It is no surprise, then, to discover more than a hint of that determination to face down authority and to have one's opinion heard in Tóibín's depiction of the most famous mother of all. The Testament of Mary, a novella that first manifested itself as the stage-play Testament, is bereft of high heels, or new hairdos, or mothers laying down the law; it is pitched in a far quieter and less dramatic register. But we are left in little doubt that its narrator, a woman mourning the death of her son and called upon to give an account of his life to two unnamed visitors, is more angry than she is accepting.
The mother of Jesus – she cannot bring herself to utter his name, referring to him only as "my son", or "the one who was here" or, to her interlocutors, "the one you are interested in" – is living in a small house in Ephesus; after the crucifixion, when all those close to him came under surveillance and suspicion, she was spirited away by "the Beloved Disciple", whom we may fairly assume is John, the author of the fourth gospel. Now, some years later, he has returned with another man to question her. Again, we assume that he is in the act of writing his account of the times; what she says, therefore, will not only be part of the founding of a new religion, but also ensure the posterity of its author.
What her visitors want is someone pliable, on-side, part of the project, someone who will satisfy their "vast and insatiable needs"; what they get is low-key resistance. "Just as I cannot breathe the breath of another," Mary tells us, "or help the heart of someone else to beat or their bones not to weaken or their flesh not to shrivel, I cannot say more than I can say."
Instead, she tells the reader her story: the ambivalence, bordering on dislike, she feels for her son's followers, whom she describes as misfits, "fools, twitchers, malcontents, stammerers"; the estrangement she feels when he sheds his boyhood identity and becomes someone else, "his voice all false, and his tone all stilted". That estrangement reaches its height when, at the wedding feast in Cana, Jesus appears not to recognise his mother; he has become, she realises without rancour or self-pity, filled with "unthinking energy". Leaving the wedding, she almost turns back, but does not.
Tóibín recounts a handful of these familiar stories, on each occasion making them subtly disturbing. The wedding, for example, includes an almost jocular aside about the lavishness of the gifts and the bride's clothes that first calls to mind the excess of contemporary weddings and then prompts a reflection on Mary and the cult of virginity. The resurrection of Lazarus is used as a way of thinking about the desirability – or otherwise – of immortality, the profound impact it might have on what it means to be human.
The book's climax comes, of course, with the crucifixion. Here, Mary gives full rein not only to her love for her son but to her understanding of the limits of their bond; "the pain was his and not mine", she says, unburdening herself of a final moment of weakness that her visitors would rather not hear. "The truth should be spoken at least once in the world."
That truth, as Tóibín imagines it in this fearsomely strange, deeply thoughtful book, is far more subversive than it might at first seem. It runs counter to much Marian doctrine and many of the beliefs of the Roman Catholic church, not least the power of Mary to intercede on our behalf. The Mary who sits in her darkened house in Ephesus would not, I think, willingly take on the prayers of the world; all that she wishes for, she tells us at the book's close, is to confine dreams to the night-time and living to the daytime, and to live "in full recognition of the difference between the two".